Prologue: I am not a raging feminist and this is not a rant. Enjoy!
Forty and zero. Forty wins and not a single loss. It’s the mark of a flawless college basketball season, in which 40 opponents challenged you and crumbled, one after another, under the weight of your perfection. It means that you’re just too damn good.
Winning 40 games and being undefeated in a season had never been done before the 2012 NCAA women’s tournament in Denver. That’s when Brittney Griner and the Baylor University Lady Bears hoisted the championship trophy under a shower of confetti, breaking the 39-0 record while barely breaking a sweat. With her performance throughout the season – capped off by the 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks she collected in the big game – Griner catapulted into the discussion for the best female basketball player EVER.
But you don’t care. You didn’t care then and you don’t care now. Nobody cares about how talented Griner is. The only thing that mattered after the Lady Bears made history was how deep the team’s star player’s voice was during the postgame interview.
The Twitterverse, the new standard for assessing public opinion, erupted with countless tweets questioning if Griner was really a woman and wondering how big her penis had to be for her to sound and look like that. The most derogatory tweets were from male users.
If you were watching the game, which you probably weren’t, you would have been thinking the same exact thing. And you know what? It’s not entirely your fault. It’s not entirely your fault that you didn’t know much about Brittney Griner when you started reading this. It’s not entirely your fault that the first thing you’ll think when you see her will have nothing to do with her game but rather her appearance. You’ve been conditioned to not care about Griner, or any dominant female athlete that doesn’t sexually entice you. I forgive you.
There have been a million studies about how often men think about sex. The most recent one, from Ohio State University, says guys think about sex as much as they think about eating, roughly 19 times a day. I’m willing to bet that the number skyrockets when watching women run around a tennis court in short skirts or jumping up and down at the volleyball net. You are more likely to stay tuned if the players help you reach your sex thoughts quota.
Sure, Griner can be tough and athletic but she has to be delicate, girly and sexy too. She has to fit into the box you’ve made for her, the one that defines what a beautiful woman is. Any female athlete who can’t simultaneously be all of those things risks wallowing in anonymity, regardless of how skilled she is.
“What Brittney is stepping into is nothing new in terms of women athletes having to fill both sides,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Her strength and aggression and competence on the court is very threatening to a lot of the ways society has constructed men and women. She stands in contrast to all of that.”
Griner knows what she looks like, and she is well aware of the way she is perceived. She has repeatedly said that the “haters” dwelling on her appearance just serve as motivation. At 6-feet-8-inches, she stands more than a foot taller than the average woman. She draws attention everywhere she goes, much more so in the 94 by 50 square foot hardwood rectangle where she dominates. She is long and lanky, with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan, just one inch shorter than her favorite basketball player, LeBron James. Her sneakers are a men’s size 17. She doesn’t wear lipstick or mascara on the court, the way some other players do. She sometimes makes this type of war battle cry sound when she dunks, a la Serena Williams after an ace.
All of this adds up to half of the reason you don’t care or know much about Griner. Watching her play doesn’t make you want to have sex with her. She isn’t your idea of a beautiful woman. The other half is that the television marketing and advertising gods agree with you. See? It’s not entirely your fault. Stay with me.
Throughout this historic season, only five of the Lady Bears’ games aired on the ESPN family of networks, compared to 15 for the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball championship team. I know that women’s basketball isn’t ESPN’s primary breadwinner. A glance at the championship game’s TV ratings – 3 million viewers nationwide for the women, 21 million for the men – will confirm that. But still, if a player is having an amazing season and leading an undefeated team, shouldn’t they be everywhere? How often did we see Aaron Rodgers during the Green Bay Packers hot streak this past NFL season? Despite being arguably the best female basketball player of her generation, Griner is still unknown to anyone who doesn’t regularly follow women’s basketball.
It may be fairer to compare Griner to another dominant female basketball player, because we all know that the disparities between men and women’s sports are another article for another day. On the court, Griner often draws comparisons to Candace Parker, the University of Tennessee star who won back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008. Like Griner, Parker’s game also drew comparisons to NBA players, but not in an insulting way. You’ll have a hard time finding Parker as the subject of the cruel comments that are under every single YouTube video featuring Griner.
Because of her skills, Parker was declared the new face of women’s basketball. She was all over magazine pages and TV, a sign that her looks received the stamp of approval from the gods. Then the endorsements came rolling in: Gatorade, Adidas, McDonald’s. Parker makes almost $4 million a year, with more than half of that stemming from endorsements.
But Parker’s earnings don’t land her in Forbes Magazine’s top 10 list of highest paid female athletes. Seven tennis players are in that group, with Maria Sharapova sitting at number one. Sharapova makes around $25 million a year, with all but $2 million coming from endorsements with companies like Nike, Canon and Tiffany & Co.
That is the advantage of sexually appealing to male sports fans and the television marketing and advertising gods. But where does that leave prominent female athletes like Griner, the stars who don’t fit the boxes we’ve made for them? Griner won’t wake up tomorrow morning looking like Sharapova. Are you and the gods going to continue having a problem with it?